First of two parts
IN what was probably one of his last significant acts before leaving office, President BS Aquino 3rd on Monday signed into law Republic Act 10844 creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). The long-awaited move was nearly overshadowed, however, by comments made by presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte over the weekend, when he leveled a threat at the country’s two existing telecom giants PLDT and Globe: “You improve the service or I will open the Philippines [to outside competition]. All can come in.”
Duterte’s warning was welcomed by virtually everyone who is forced to contend with internet service that is said to be the second-slowest in Asia – only slightly faster than war-torn Afghanistan – and costs nearly three-and-a-half times the global average ($18.19 per Mbps versus $5.21 per Mbps globally, according to web metrics provider Ookla). The comments were undoubtedly also taken as a hopeful sign by public and private sector advocates who have been lobbying for the DICT for years, as the implementation of the new law will fall entirely to Duterte.
For their part, both PLDT and Globe were quick to publicly express their willingness to cooperate with the new president’s demand, and suggested they have been pursuing the same aim all along.
“We are aligned with government efforts to improve telecom services,” a spokesman for PLDT said, adding that the company “is in fact in the middle of a major 3-year network investment program that is in process of significantly improving telecom and Internet services for PLDT and Smart customers, and will support national development initiatives.”
Globe, meanwhile, said that it “supports” calls for faster internet. In a statement, Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications Yoly Crisanto pointed out that, “In fact, Globe is at the forefront of building the much needed infrastructure nationwide to make Internet services easily accessible either through mobile or wireline. This is supported by heavy investments over the years to make sure the Philippines is at par with other countries in terms of technology use.”
But exactly how far the DICT and the existing telecoms’ new-found spirit of cooperation with the next administration’s stated aim to make fast and affordable internet service a matter of public policy will go and how fast it will get there remains to be seen. Wanting to improve slow and expensive services is easy; actually making substantial changes is likely to be much more difficult.
The mandate of the DICT under RA 10844 is “to formulate and implement policies that will promote the development and use of ICT, establish a free internet service that can be accessed in government offices and public areas, and protect the rights and welfare of consumers and business users to privacy, security and confidentiality in matters relating to ICT.” The law separates all communications-related offices and functions from the Department of Transportation and Communications – which will now simply be the “Department of Transportation” – and places them under the DICT, including the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO), National Computer Center (NCC), National Computer Institute (NCI), Telecommunications Office (TELOF), and the National Telecommunications Training Institute (NTTI).
Even though DICT is the overall policy-setting body and is the administrative parent agency of the NTC, it is the latter that is the actual regulator of the industry; it operates independently in terms of regulatory and quasi-judicial functions, and its decisions may only be appealed to the Supreme Court. The NTC regulates the telecoms in terms of their network coverage and functions, but under the NTC guidelines, internet services are considered value-added services, which are unregulated.
Thus in order for the DICT to be effective in setting policy related to internet services, it requires an implementation and regulatory component. Under present circumstances it does not clearly have that, and according to some experts, may require additional legislation or at least amendment of RA 10844.